Amateurism is a hot-button topic for us at Sports on Earth, as anyone familiar with my colleague Patrick Hruby’s excellent work over the past year and half knows. For the most part our discussion — mirroring the national discussion — has focused mainly on college football and basketball. That might have to change.
Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt reported on Thursday that several sources had confirmed to him that two of players drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in last June’s amateur draft, Oregon State’s Ben Wetzler and Washington State’s Jason Monda, had been investigated by the NCAA for violating the organization’s rules against active amateur players retaining the services of professional agents. Those same sources also confirmed to him that the investigations were triggered when the player’s infractions were reported to the NCAA by the Phillies, the team that had drafted them — and the team that they had, ultimately, chosen not to sign with.
The story is still developing, and Fitt, Baseball America and no doubt a number of other publications have much more reporting to do on this subject before the story is through. Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever declined to comment for Fitt’s Baseball America article, and it should be remembered that this is not an admission of guilt. That said, the longer the story remains out there without a denial or explanation from Philadelphia, the worse this looks.
It looks pretty bad already. The MLB draft works differently from just about every other draft on the planet. Players don’t “declare” for it like they do in other professional sports, but are instead eligible to be selected by teams once they meet certain age and residency requirements. Once they’re eligible, they can be chosen by a team whether they want to play pro ball or not. The team that selects them gets exclusive negotiating rights until a signing deadline after the draft — the deadline itself has varied over the years, but is currently July 15. If the player and the team do not come to an agreement by that deadline, the player’s rights revert and he is free to be chosen again by another team in the next year’s draft.
So unlike in the other professional drafts, where players declare their eligibility to be drafted, formally forfeit their remaining NCAA eligibility and retain the services of an agent, at no point before they sign a contract with a team is a college baseball player not an “amateur.” That means he is expected to go into contract negotiations — sometimes multi-million dollar contract negotiations — with a business full of experienced professionals on his own, without representation.
There is already a vast power disparity between a college sophomore or junior drafted in the fifth or sixth round and the team who drafted him, by virtue of the player not being allowed to have representation in the room if he wants to go back for another year. Players very frequently use “advisors” to help them in their negotiations with teams, and as Baseball America notes, this has generally been accepted as standard in the industry.
It would be an understatement to say that it would be disappointing to learn that an MLB franchise decided to punish two college players for not signing with them at the terms they wanted by trying to sabotage their ability to complete their educations, continue with their careers and continue playing the game of baseball. And regardless of motive, an MLB team has no place involving itself in the disciplinary workings of the NCAA.
The Phillies need to either release an emphatic denial of the reported facts or account for the reasoning behind their actions and, almost certainly, the steps they’re going to take to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Otherwise, there’s no reason for any college baseball player to even engage them in conversation going forward — lest the team try to hold it against them if negotiations fall through. Without an explanation, there’s no reason for the Phillies to be met with anything but a great wall of silence.